A sermon preached by Nikolaj Christensen on Sunday 23 January 2022. You can also watch the sermon on YouTube.
Please be seated. Now, if only I got to sit down to preach as well, like Jesus in our passage today. He was just following the custom of a Jewish rabbi. It’s fascinating though that some customs do live on, like when it said in our Old Testament reading that ‘when [Ezra] opened [the book], all the people stood up’. That sounds a lot like something we just did!
I do find it delightfully meta that today we have heard these two stories from the Bible about people hearing from the Bible. But at the same time I think these two are also some very profound stories.
There are at least two things that should strike us about that first reading. One is the obvious reverence the people showed towards hearing the scriptures – these are people who do not have a Bible on the bookshelf, or on the bedside table, which they could open any time, and perhaps should, but don’t.
Not only did they not own their own copy of the book of the Law, but they had also just returned from an exile which they had been in due to their failure to listen and take on board what the Law of the scriptures said. Too many bacon cheeseburgers, and too much Baal-worship, and not enough compassion for the poor. So, they bow their heads to the ground, in embarrassment perhaps. It even says that ‘all the people wept when they heard the words of the law’ – because as they listened, they realised they had failed to keep God’s law so miserably, they didn’t know where to begin.
But the other thing we should notice is what Ezra and his helpers do in response: they make sure to help people by explaining the reading, ‘so that the people understood’. Again, that’s what I’m trying to do too, so that’s also a custom we’ve kept. But the gist of their preaching is not what the people expected. It’s not: ‘darn right, you’d better try harder next time’. No, it’s the complete opposite. They tell them not to weep, but instead to put on a feast! ‘This day is holy to the LORD your God; … Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those’ who don’t have enough to put on a feast of their own.
They tell them that hearing the Word of God should be a reason for rejoicing, because in spite of everything, God has been merciful, God has been faithful, God has redeemed them, God has led them home from exile, God has restored their city, God wants them to be filled with joy, and ‘the joy of the LORD is your strength’. Joy is the proper response to the word of God.
The same is true in our Gospel for today. Jesus reads the prophecy of Isaiah about proclaiming ‘good news to the poor … release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind’, and freedom for ‘the oppressed’. And Jesus doesn’t then go on to give his fellow townsfolk a little pep-talk with those items as a checklist for them to carry out for the benefit of other people out there. No, he simply says, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ You heard it, and so the good news has been proclaimed. Because it’s so easy for us to think of ‘the poor’ as ‘those people over there’, and ‘the captives’, well that can’t be us, and the ‘blind’, certainly not.
But we do all have things that are holding us captive and oppressed – circumstances that we are powerless to change, some of them perhaps of our own making. We do all have blind spots, more than we know, but some of them we may become aware of when they get us in trouble. And we are all poor in some sense or other, perhaps poor financially, perhaps poor in spirit, perhaps time-poor, and so on. But Jesus reads this passage as being about himself, ‘the Lord … has anointed me … to proclaim release to the captives’, namely you. Jesus proclaimed the good news to the people of his hometown, and they were the people who needed to hear it in that moment, not some other unfortunate people.
Perhaps you need some good news today too? I mean, of course we should seek to help those in need, and we’ll be talking much more about that next Sunday. But perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to distinguish between people who are in need and people who aren’t. We’re all in need, and if we are able to help others, it is only because we have allowed ourselves first to be loved by God. So, allow him to love you. Seek the sources of his love. I say this not as another thing to add to your to-do list, but as something to give you relief. Try reading the Bible by yourself; you might like it. But more importantly, come together with others who can support, perhaps in one of our small groups, and you can always contact one of the ministry team to hear more. And keep coming back to church. Where else can you hear that you are loved no matter what?
Thanks be to God.